Tag Archives: reflective writing

do over

graffiti of a sunflower, drawn onto red brickGood morning good morning — how is Tuesday feeling so far? Here the candles are low, flickering and sputtering hard, working hard for the last interweavings of oxygen and wax before losing all fuel.

The tea today is Moroccan mint – nettle/dandelion – cardamom – anise. Bitter with sweet undertones; a good wake-up tea.

We had a fantastic first meeting of the Fall ’11 Write Whole group last night — such powerful writers. I’m excited and grateful to be working with them! I woke up this morning and spent the first part of my writing time doing some reflective writing about the group — I’ve wanted to start a reflective practice after each workshop meeting for more than a year now, so it feels good to have begun that.

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For our second write last night, I filled the center of our writing table with images, asking each writer to choose one or two (I like it when we can notice which images seem to be choosing us) and let themselves imagine what was just about to happen in that picture, what had just happened, or to notice what the image reminded them of. We wrote for 20 minutes.

Here is my write in response — there were a number of images of older women, and older hands, and that was what I was responding to, initially:

There’s a backstory to all these women — I sat in a room yesterday and looked around at all the people smiling and thought, Every one of these women has been hurt. They were singing, all the people, we were in a circle, there was light overhead, how could they be smiling. It’s history. I wanted to know each of their stories, to hear them unfurl. I sat in a roomful of strangers and wanted to understand how it could be taht we could all sit together and be so composed when we were all fragile and braking every second, like humans do.

This writing is coming hard. When we were little we didn’t break glass or windows, we didn’t slam hammers into red Pinto or Nova hoods, we didn’t reach out or hands and scrape angry nails across other kids’ faces, what did we learn to do with our anger? How do you get trained, so successfully, to swallow, so early? How did we learn to disappear our anger?

This isn’t like that. This is another story. My mother has my grandmother’s hands now. I don’t have strong memories of my grandmother’s hands, but they were powdery, soft-skinned, bony — I want those to be tenderer words than they are. My parents are aging, hair long gone white or grey, strong and resistant bodies beginning to slow, and I am still waiting for the do over to begin. I see them and I’m startled. Wait, I think, we’re supposed to go bike riding around Holmes Lake today. We’re supposed to take a ride in the old VW bus out to  see the wild buffalo all caged up at Pioneer Park, we’re supposed to crawl around the statue of the Indian, carved out of red sandstone, stain our hands with the dust of him. When do we get to go back to the time before mom marries that man and he grabs at our hair by the roots and swings us around and unlearns us from our history? Before he shakes out the memories we let tangle on the surface of our skin, before he tells us his hands belong everywhere on us and so we learn that we belong nowhere inside us — when do we get to go back to Before him?

The horror is that I’ve been waiting these years, some awful lonely girlchild bit is sitting at her desk in a quiet classroom, finishing all her homework like a good girl is supposed to — she is from Before, and the room smells like chalk dust and night, like soft-soled teacher shoes and polyester and wood polish, and she is practicing her cursive on a big lined sheet of paper, she is doing her numbers, like her grandma would say, she is reading the part in her social studies book about the founding of America. She is there and doing her work and knows that when everything is done, when the bigger parts can feel and hear and remember everything again, then she will get to go home. She will meet her little sister at the side steps of her school and walk down the  block to the busy street that they have to wait a long time to cross and when they get home, Mommy will be making dinner and Daddy will be taking a nap on the couch. This is the time from Before — she expects to walk into that house and not find strangers there, she expects to walk into that house and have a real lifetime with her parents, she expects to walk into this skin and not find these scars layering out in front of her one-two-three. She will not be happy with what she finds. She is going to want her do over. When is that going to start?

As a prompt for today, you might let yourself get drawn to an image around you (on the front of a magazine? a piece of art in your place? a remembered image from film or tv?) and write about what’s there, or what associations you have with that image. Or you might also write about ‘do over’ — what could happen with that phrase when you copy it into your notebook and just let the associations come? Follow your writing wherever it wants to go.

Thank you for the way you gather, tenderly, all the different parts of you, and how you listen to the parts who want the impossible things. Thank you for your breath today. Thank you for your words.

what happened? what do I mean by that?

graffiti in the background, purple-flowering vetch (I think) in the foregroundSometimes a candle is all you need, and a pen, and a notebook, and a cup of something warm. Maybe this morning, write about proprioceptive writing — write about freewriting and reflective writing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about reflective writing, I think because I want more time and structure for reflection in my own life and work. I have my morning pages, which are a momentary core dump of sorts, but not a specifically reflective time. In the morning, I’m still stum-numbly with sleep and dreams, and I’m trying to capture that emotional energy on the page, I want those dreams, I want those images and words before they split and slip away. I want the thickest heaviest emotion, those blocky truths — but at this hour, I’m not always, or I haven’t been, deeply reflective, at least not directively so.

At my day job at the UCSF School of Medicine, I learned about reflective writing as a way to further a medical student’s education, to deepen and broaden their empathetic learning, to encourage the student to engage deeply in a particular incident or interaction (particularly a situation in which they learned something, or one that went especially well, or one that didn’t go well) with a patient, and to go deep into what happened: how the student felt when it happened, what they noticed, how they felt changed afterward, how things might have gone differently. In asking these questions over time in a reflective writing practice, students integrate their experiences differently, and connect emotion to their learning and patient interactions. Of course, these practices aren’t limited to medical students — everyone (I believe!) can benefit from this reflective writing. There are lots of good resources around Reflective Writing; I just finished reading Gillie Bolton’s Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development, which I had to check out several times from the UCSF library, because I just wasn’t ready to let it go.

(I’m not accustomed to writing so linearly in the morning. This is new work!)

So there’s this thing called reflective writing practice, and then there’s also proprioceptive writing, which was developed by Linda Trichter Metcalf in the 1970s. I first heard about this practice from a co-worker at a Battered Women’s shelter where I was working in Maine, the same co-worker who introduced me to Amherst Writers and Artists & Pat Schneider’s work. The way I understood proprioceptive writing, you sit in a quiet room, someone lights a candle and puts on some Bach, and you write deeply for 30 minutes. But there’s more to it than that, as I understand it now: while writing, you listen deeply to yourself and begin to ask questions of the writing: what do I mean by that? What do I mean by deeply, for instance, in the above sentence? What an excellent question! This would, I think, encourage my writing open, and take me into some surprising places. (Read more about proprioceptive writing in Writing the Mind Alive by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon.) I’m looking into proprioceptive writing classes/workshops now, to learn more about how to embody this practice.

(I think one reason I haven’t yet is that I get weirdly jealous or loyal to a practice or method or teacher, and for the last 10 years, I’ve only wanted AWA to be the “thing I do.” AWA, of course, is my workshop home, and I have to assure my inside self, the way maybe a parent would have to reassure a child, that AWA won’t be hurt and my practice won’t be harmed if I learn about other methods and practices, other ways of writing deeply in community. Whew, that loyalty stuff runs deep!)

At the very beginning of my work with the writing workshops, when I was leading a workshop as a part of my MA practicum, I was quite reflective on the work. I had to write for school about what I was doing, what happened in the workshops, how exercises worked or didn’t, and more, for my advisor. This didn’t develop into a habit that I carried with me into the work, however — I would get up at the end of the night, chat with the writers as I was packing up materials and such, and take the bus home, looking out into the dark San Francisco evening, turning over what had gone on that night, but also drifting back into my ‘regular’ life. It was as though, somehow, there was a different me that sat in the workshops and facilitated. Compartmentalization can be a gift as a survival strategy, it’s true, and it can also be a struggle when that strategy stops being as useful and you want to begin letting all those separate cells of self come together again.

So, as I got pretty overloaded over the last couple of years, I began to think that taking time after the workshops for reflection would be very helpful — not only would I open myself up to integrating what we’d just all done together, but I could pay attention to what had gone well, what hadn’t gone as well, I could question my nerves and struggles, I could let them come out on the page, I could look at interactions from different angles. This is all great! But I haven’t done it yet — for most of my time as a workshop facilitator, I have led my workshops away from home, so when they’re done at 9, I’m packing up and preparing for a good 45-minutes to an hour of transit; then, when I get home, maybe I watch a little tv to ‘come down,’ maybe I read for a while, to transition; it’s not about integrating, though, is it? It’s about compartmentalizing. So the workshops, they get heavier and heavier, because I’m getting heavier and heavier. What we do together in the workshops is big, as survivors of sexual trauma writing together, as folks writing gorgeous and powerful desire, and sometimes these groups come together, survivors writing complicated, gorgeous longings and lust. Every time I walk into the room, I’m carrying unintegrated stuff from every other workshop, I’m carrying fears and excitements and uncertainty, and I don’t take the time to play with the questions that I’m living with: what’s working well? Why is it working well? what’s not working well? how do I feel about that? How could these situations go differently? How do I feel changed after each workshop? And, each time, to go deeper: what do I mean by that?

This feels not just like a powerful ‘professional development’ practice (if you want to get technical about it) but also a radical self care practice. It’s about opening time for questioning, which means, too, thinking about how and when workshops happen, so that I allow this time to happen, so that I allow myself and the workshops this time.


Want to try this practice? Take 10 minutes and think on a recent situation that surprised you, or when you learned something, or when you were frustrated; just notice what comes up as you read these questions. Let yourself begin writing what happened, and ask yourself these questions as you write (maybe have them written on a separate piece of paper so you can see them): What did I see around me? How did I feel? What could I have done differently? Write from a place of unknowing and curiosity, as much as possible — this isn’t about self-indictment, but self-wondering and maybe self-discovery!

(or, if you want, this morning, you might also write about how the trees smell today — whatever you choose!)


Thanks for the ways you let the different parts of yourself/selves begin to commingle. Thanks for the creative possibilities you allow for your own growth and opening and safety. Thanks for the delicious power of your words.